Early on, Romero learned that all great horror films reflects real-life horror, so he injected each of his own with equal parts social commentary and explicit gore. Ultimately, the films serve as snapshots of the times they were filmed. In 1968, "Night of the Living Dead" was made during the turbulent Civil Rights movement. Critics loved how Romero cast an African-American actor as the lead. Romero now says that subtext was unintentional; Duane Jones was not cast for his race but because he was the best actor for the part.
In 1978, Romero looked at consumerism by shooting the satirical "Dawn of the Dead" in one of the first shopping malls in America. In 1985, "Day of the Dead" took on the Reagan era with science versus military, and Romero introduced the first sympathetic zombie, Bub (Howard Sherman). Romero's post-9/11 clash of classes was evident in 2005's "Land of the Dead," even casting Dennis Hopper in a Rumsfeld-Cheney-type role. Two years later, "Diary of the Dead" focused on college filmmakers uploading their zombie footage online. Now, with "Survival," Romero goes from high-tech to low-tech by setting the film on an island with warring Irish families—his statement against tribalism, the cause of most modern warfare. Here, the 70-year-old filmmaker discusses his favorite performances, zombie evolution, and his first gig on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Back Stage: I read that your first job was shooting short films for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in Pittsburgh.
George Romero: It was my first job, yeah. He had a little device on his show where the trolley would come by and he'd say, "Oh, it's time for Picture Picture." He had a picture frame, and he would show these little movies, sometimes really abstract like "Things With Wheels" and one was "How Do They Make Light Bulbs?" and one was "Mister Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy," designed to make kids not afraid of the ether mask. It was kind of weird for Fred, the gentlest man in the world, to hire some scary guy.
Back Stage: I heard that when you were casting "Night of the Living Dead" you wanted to hire Betty Aberlin, who voiced Lady Aberlin on his show, as Barbra. But Mister Rogers wouldn't allow it?
Romero: He didn't. He was afraid what we might do to her, with her.
Back Stage: What did he think of "Night of the Living Dead"?
Romero: In the end, he liked it.
Back Stage: Aside from the ability to withstand hours of makeup, night shoots, and experience with firearms, what qualities do you look for in actors?
Romero: I look for nonconfrontational people. I like to run a very casual set, and I really like collaborators. I'm not dictatorial in any way. I'd much rather have the contributions of the individual players. Initially, I look at reels. Then the most important thing to me is when we finally get to meet. It's not even an audition. It's not, "Read this for me." It's more like, "Let's chat. What did you think of this script?" And then get inside the script a little bit.
Back Stage: So you're very open to actors' ideas?
Romero: Oh yeah, and I appreciate someone that really gets what I'm trying to do with it and understands the subtext. A certain type of actor welcomes that, and others don't. Others just want to be told, "How do you want me to play this?" I much prefer the collaborative actor who is willing to just explore ideas, because I'm never certain. I'm not even into it far enough myself to have fully analyzed it. Most of the time, I'm auditioning people before I've even finished writing, because we're making changes even as we go. I'd much rather do that collaboratively and discover the character with the actor and finally land somewhere.
Back Stage: Were there any interesting stories behind casting "Survival of the Dead"? Alan Van Sprang played the same character in "Diary of the Dead."
Romero: He was actually in "Land of the Dead," too. He's not technically the same character, because that character is owned by Universal. So I can't say he's the same character, but it's his third film with me. Everybody was fabulous, and we were really plagued with the worst weather. It kicked us four days over schedule. These guys were like the old days: "This is what we do. The show must go on."
Back Stage: I hear you like actors with theatrical backgrounds.
Romero: I love it. When I was in college, you couldn't take a film course where you could ever get your hands on equipment. It was more film appreciation, so the only hands-on experience that I had was in theater at Carnegie Mellon. I love theater and I respect it, there's something about the work ethic in needing to know your character and needing to be able to do it top to bottom so that you know where you are at every time.
Back Stage: You saw John Amplas in a play and then cast him in [the 1977 vampire film] "Martin." What are some other performances that you're proud of that you think other actors could learn from?
Romero: I think Amplas takes it for me in terms of single best performance. Ed Harris, of course, is wonderful in "Knightriders," and I love working with Ed. I love his work ethic. He really takes his work seriously. Howard [Sherman] of course. And even though I had sort of tensions with him on the set, Tim Hutton in "The Dark Half." It was tough because we were sort of at each other for the first half of that production, but by the end our relationship was much repaired. He did a fabulous job with that. These actors came to play. They didn't discriminate against the genre.
Back Stage: When David Emge emerges from the elevator in "Dawn of the Dead," he does what you described as "the definitive zombie walk" in the spirit of Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney.
Romero: It's amazing what [Emge] was doing. His ankle was twisted and that walk that he had and the stiff arm and the gun hanging off his pinky finger. That's what I was saying, if you just let people do what they want to do. Sometimes they'll go over the top on zombies, if you have a group, and you have to kind of put someone in the back. Basically, if you let people do their best "dead" you get great stuff.
Back Stage: I would argue that Tom Savini, who's been in six of your films, is the quintessential Romero actor because he can also do stunts and makeup.
Romero: Completely, he was the go-to guy, so terrific, and a complete trouper and wonderful to have on the set. He still has that energy that just doesn't quit.
Back Stage: Let's talk zombie evolution. In "Dawn" a zombie carries a gun; in "Day," Bub shoots a gun; in "Land," Big Daddy organizes a zombie army; and in "Survival" zombies are beginning to eat horsemeat rather than humans. So my question is the next chapter—will it be like Damien in that DC Comic series you wrote "The Death of Death"? You could come full-circle and create the first really sympathetic zombie in the same way you made "Martin" such a sympathetic vampire.
Romero: Not particularly, no. That was just an experiment that I was trying. I don't know if that's a cinematic idea as much as narrative fiction prose. You can't get too much inside the head or else you're going to humanize [zombies] too much for them to make sense onscreen or a dramatic narrative.
Back Stage: I know you're a fan of "Shaun of the Dead," but what do you think of horror films today, particularly the popular new subgenre "torture porn" like the "Saw" and "Hostel" films?
Romero: It's torturous to me. What are they about? What's the politics behind it? What are we supposed to take away from it? That's what bugs me. So few people use fantasy and horror as allegory unless you're Guillermo del Toro or, to a lesser degree, me. I guess it's because it's easy, and the people that are writing the checks say, "We'd rather have another one of those because that made so much money last time." Unfortunately, it's an uphill battle all the way.
Back Stage: What's going on with "Before I Wake," the ghost story you're doing with producer Peter Grunwald?
Romero: That's very much alive. We'd love to do it. We're working on it as we speak. Peter and I have another one called "Moonshadows," which is sort of soft horror for younger viewers with a story that I love. We have another horror idea, which is nonzombie, that I've been working on for the last couple of weeks. But I'll tell you what, if ["Survival"] makes money, I will happily—it would be like taking a vacation—say, "Okay, let's do the other two." I would really like to do this little set of films that really paints sort of a portrait of what the world is like. I've never been able to cross-collateralize characters and story points and make it sort of one big piece because the other films are controlled by different people. We'll see. It depends on what happens.